Taking up the tag of dark horses may be tough for a side who have not played finals football for 12 years, but senior players are looking to inspire a new generation
By Kris Voakes in Sao Paulo
Few countries approaching a first World Cup in 12 years would carry with them quite so much expectation.
Belgium have just one player with any tournament experience, and only a fourth-place finish in 1986 by way of previous World Cup credentials, yet they came into the 2014 version as fifth favourites.
That was thanks to a fantastic qualification record mixed with the fact they have one of the most star-studded squads in the competition. Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld were three minutes shy of being Spanish and European double winners last month, while 11 more players ply their trade at the top end of the English Premier League.
Throw in talents such as Axel Witsel, Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne, and you have a group of players of which a degree of success is perhaps rightly expected.
Marc Wilmots’ men also had the bonus of being seeded in the finals draw, landing them in Group H alongside Russia, Algeria and South Korea. Germany or Portugal could well await them in the last 16, but few would bet against the Belgians if that were the case.
|BELGIUM'S WORLD CUP RECORD
|1st round||1930, 1934, 1938,
1954, 1970, 1998
|2nd round||1982, 1990, 1994, 2002|
|DNQ||1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 2006, 2010
Their success or otherwise will likely depend on how they take to the tournament atmosphere, that Daniel van Buyten has previously experienced.
“I try to be the big brother for everybody in the team,” Van Buyten told reporters at the team’s Mogi das Cruzes training camp. “Some of the young players have a lot of pressure and a bit of fear. It’s often easier to speak with a team-mate instead of the manager. I’m here to help them.
“I have an eye on each player to train well. That’s very important. It’s not only playing PlayStation in your free time. There are things to pay attention to and I’ll look after that.”
The younger siblings are also talking like old pros, though. Courtois insists that the squad are not getting ahead of themselves.
“This is our first time back here for 12 years, so we have to stay with our feet on the ground and try to pass the group,” the Atletico Madrid loanee insisted.
“If we get into the next round it is already good, and whatever comes after that – quarter-finals or more – is a success.”
“Everyone knows we have a good group and a lot of quality,” added Tottenham midfielder Moussa Dembele. “We have to play comfortably and pass the first stage.
“Even if we have to try to do everything, our first aim is to pass the first stage. If you win the first game, it will be easier.”
For Belgium, that first game comes on Tuesday against Algeria at the Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, and coach Wilmots insists that his team will kick off in perfect condition.
“For the first few days in Brazil, the players woke up at 6:00 in the morning, but on Saturday they were up at 8:00 and that was the first day we felt like they had got into the rhythm of the Brazilian environment. You could see in training that morning that everybody was sharp and everybody was fit,” admitted the 45-year-old, who was a part of the country’s 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads.
“The medical staff had said that due to the time difference between here and Belgium being five hours, we would need one day for each hour. Now we have been here more than five days and it feels as if we are getting into the Brazilian rhythm, so we will be exactly fit enough for the first game against Algeria.”
Wilmots’ input could prove key for a squad of such vast quality but little World Cup know-how, but while Alderweireld agrees that the coach’s helping hand may become more and more important as the tournament continues, the Atletico defender insists the squad has plenty of personal experience to call upon too.
“Of course it’s good for the trainer to have World Cup experience, but a lot of players have played at the Champions League level and have played Champions League finals so that’s also on the biggest level in the world,” said Alderweireld.
“I think the lack of experience in the World Cup is not so big. We have a good team, and we will see how we go.”
And on Tuesday, the whole world will get to see how Belgium might go in the first big test of their credentials. But are they ready to live up to the expectation?
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